Matt Chan speaks at a rally opposing a plan from King County to expand a shelter on the edge of the Chinatown International District. Photo by Eugene Tagawa.

On September 8, 2022, Matt Chan helped lead the first rally against a planned homeless shelter expansion at the edge of the Chinatown International District (CID). The day before, he received his first chemotherapy infusion treatment for kidney cancer. 

Chan didn’t know how long he would live. But he wasn’t about to give up, or retreat from a serious challenge.

This was no surprise to people who know Chan, his resourcefulness and work ethic. “I don’t think Matt is the type of guy that’s gonna just sit around and let an illness overtake him without fighting it,” said Enrique Cerna, his friend of over four decades.

Chan has worked in the TV industry for over 45 years, creating the hit reality show Hoarders. He was one of only a few people of color named in the Hollywood Reporter’s Top 50 Reality Power Producers.

In recent years, Chan has lent his time producing political ads for candidates of color. He served on the board of the International Special Review District (ISRD), scrutinizing plans from property developers in the CID. 

And last year, Chan used his storytelling skills to fight against the King County shelter expansion, creating a platform for the community to voice its concerns. In October 2022, the County backed down from the plan. In the same month, Chan was honored with special recognition at the International Examiner’s Community Voice Awards.

This year, Chan has seen positive results in his cancer treatment. He celebrated his 70th birthday in February with his family, grandchildren, and over 80 guests from different facets of his life and career.

Chan grew up in southeast Portland, the son of second-generation immigrants. His father was a meat-cutter and his mother a housewife who took odd jobs.

Chan was fascinated by media technology at an early age: Radios, tape recorders, video cameras. He developed a passion for filmmaking in high school, and studied broadcast at the University of Oregon.

At his first job at a public TV station, Chan was tasked with learning almost every job in the station: Engineering, development, on-air, directing and more. 

He moved to Seattle for a job at KING TV working in public affairs, producing, and directing. There he met coworkers and future lifelong friends Eugene Tagawa and Enrique Cerna.

“Both of us being Asians in a mostly white building, that was sort of a bonding factor,” said Tagawa, who then worked in the graphics department. Tagawa retired from his television and design career in 2007. Chan developed great skill with editing, sound design and visuals, Tagawa said. “He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever known.”

“Matt was just brilliant when it came to technology and producing,” said Cerna, a veteran journalist who in 2018 retired as senior correspondent at Cascade Public Media’s KCTS 9. “He’s a loyal friend. He has been to me, he’s helped me tremendously. I think that as much as he can have that gruff kind of demeanor that he has at times, he’s got a really sensitive, very caring side to him.”

Left to right: Matt Chan, Eugene Tagawa, and Enrique Cerna, photographed in 1979. Photo courtesy of Eugene Tagawa.

Chan took a job at KPIX (CBS) in San Francisco working as a video editor, where he learned how to quickly develop and edit stories from an outline, cutting together footage and voiceover narratives. “I just kind of learned to do that under fire,” Chan said. “That’s where I really got my storytelling chops.”

There he met his wife, Gei Chan. Gei grew up in small-town California. She’d worked in the fashion industry, having designed influential and best-selling “Renaissance hippie look” dresses for Gunne Sax straight out of design school. After leaving the fashion industry, she worked at KPIX coordinating the on-camera wardrobe for actress Mary Martin. 

To learn more about TV production, Gei got involved with a story Matt was editing

Later she was Chan’s date for the Emmy Awards. Chan felt confident he would win for editing, Gei recalled but early in the program, when it was clear he hadn’t, he started drinking like everyone else who’d lost. But by the end of the program, Chan won a production Emmy in a competitive category. He had to weave his way through the banquet tables while drunk to make a speech, during which he thanked Gei. “So I thought, okay, this is good,” she recalled. “So that’s how it all began.”

Matt and Gei Chan in San Francisco, c. 1983. Photo by Eugene Tagawa.

Chan is an avid learner, Gei said, and eager to teach others what he knows. “As soon as he became a producer, when he was like 30, 31 years old, he was pulling up other people, people of color and giving them opportunities,” she said. Many of the people he taught became producers with life-long careers. “This is what’s fascinating about him there was just no ego,” Gei said. “The craft, the product is the most important thing. How do you reach people?”

Being Asian American in the white-dominated TV industry was “profoundly lonely,” Chan said. At any job, he gravitated toward other people of color. Being an Asian American producer, Chan was the target of discrimination, doubt and negativity from white colleagues, Tagawa said.

Chan’s secret to successful storytelling is first understanding what audiences want to see, and offering them something they can connect with. “But you give them more, you take them in a different direction. They really appreciate it because that’s sort of the essence of entertainment.”

This, he thinks, is how he was able to create multiple hit TV shows such as Hoarders.

The idea for the show came to Chan while he was staying in a hotel in Japan, watching TV. On screen, a house in a nice neighborhood was trashed, and the city was cleaning it up. “There are rats and garbage and everybody was very emotional,” he recalled. “And I go like, this is pretty good TV.”

At the time, the word “hoarder” wasn’t widely known. Back in the U.S., Chan did some research and found out it was a real condition that can lead to drastic situations like he saw on TV in Japan.

Chan envisioned the show as rather dark and heavy, yet relatable for anyone. “There’s nobody I know that doesn’t understand the concept of inanimate objects having emotional value, because they hold memories,” Chan said. 

The network was skeptical about a hoarding reality show, but after the Hoarders pilot pulled in a stunning number of viewers, the network picked it up and it was a smash hit. Within three weeks it was featured on Oprah. At the grocery store, in elevators, even at the hospital, Chan and Gei would hear people talk about the show.  

After retiring from TV, Chan lent his storytelling talents to producing a short documentary about the murder of Donnie Chin that was featured in the Seattle Asian American Film Festival and caught the attention of local politicians. 

He helped produce political ads for candidates of color, notably County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, State Sen. Joe Nguyen, and Port of Seattle Commissioners Hamdi Mohamed and Toshiko Hasegawa.

Nguyen faced a daunting fight in the primary election. He wanted to highlight his Vietnamese immigrant background in his ad. Chan tweaked the message so it had a universal appeal. “And so we started this first spot with the lines, ‘Every family has a story of adversity. This is mine.’”

Cerna describes Matt as a powerful motivator for other people. “He knows how to help people tell their story,” Cerna said. “He knows how to bring a message so that the mainstream community, the white community, will really understand what the issue is and why it’s important. And that’s a heck of a talent.”

At the end of August 2022, Chan and Gei were alarmed to hear of a plan from King County to create a “Services Hub” for people experiencing homelessness in SoDo on the edge of the CID neighborhood. The plan would have expanded the current 270-person shelter there, with additional beds and behavioral health services.

Chan and Gei were instrumental in organizing the community to speak out, and pressuring the County to reconsider. They worked with activist Tanya Woo, researching, planning rallies, mobilizing senior residents of the CID, and meeting with politicians. 

Many in the CID protested that the County had not meaningfully consulted and engaged the community, and the plan would worsen already dire public safety problems.

Chan was a leading speaker at many of the rallies, along with Woo. Gei, who speaks conversational Cantonese, helped the seniors with whatever they needed.

“So Matt, having been in the TV business, and being a producer and getting the story straight, pulled the group together and forged our message and made everybody stick to the message,” Gei said. “He took control of the narrative,” including coming up with sound bites, and feeding the story to the media.

Matt Chan (farthest right), Gei Chan (middle), and their son Max Chan (left). Photo by Eugene Tagawa.

Chan wanted to keep the focus on the safety of the CID, and decades of “government malfeasance” damaging the neighborhood. Chan and others emphasized that the rallies were not about demonizing homeless people or pitting them against the CID. Everyone wants homeless people off the streets. The concerns were mostly about criminals preying on the homeless population, and making the area less safe.

The CID community has been important for Chan and Gei. “I still consider it my cultural home,” Chan said. “This community, it really brought meaning to what I was doing, and I saw a way I can help.” Neither of them grew up near a large Asian American community. Coming from Portland, Chan knew how much that city’s Chinatown had shrunk and lost its identity.

In mid-October, barely a month after the first demonstrations, the County backed off from the shelter expansion.

Chan had entered this fight, and celebrated the victory, after being diagnosed with kidney cancer that summer. In July, his cancer had spread aggressively, with spots in his lungs. For a time, Chan wasn’t sure if he would be alive by Thanksgiving. 

You know, you readjust your life, and you kind of set out what your life is going to be like,” Chan said.

Doctors put Chan on immunotherapy and targeted chemo, which seemed to reverse the spread of the tumor. This year, a scan showed tumors continuing to shrink.

“I’ve been pretty stable the news has always been good,” Chan said in an April 14, 2023 episode of the podcast Chino y Chicano that he hosts with his friend Cerna.

Chan wasted no time in taking charge of his treatment plan, said Gei, and didn’t need help with cooking. “I see a real change in him,” she said. “His family-wise, he is like, strangely happier…. He’s more alive.”

“I think it helped his cancer, feeling the good energy of the people and seeing how happy the seniors were seeing them empowered,” Gei said. “I think that it has a healing effect on him.”

For Chan, talking openly about his diagnosis helps, including on Chino y Chicano.

“I think it’s cathartic to some degree, you know, just being able to talk about it and get it out and the ups and downs of it,” said Cerna. 

And despite the difficulty in talking about cancer, the episodes have resonated with listeners. It’s uncertain if the cancer can be fully cured. Chan is focusing on proactively battling the illness, staying active, in the present, and realistic. 

“So I live, I try to live day to day,” Chan said. “And that was one of the reasons I got involved with things, because if I can help today, it’s not gonna be any good for me [if] years, whatever time I have left, to do nothing. Because if I can make an impact while I’m here, I will.”

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